The primary narrative in the parashah focuses on Jacob, as he is the patriarch from whom our people take it's name (once it is changed to Israel). The ancient rabbis demonize Esau for the most part, equating his name with the oppressive Roman empire. But in the Torah there is none of this demonization.
If we view all the characters in the Torah as representing a part of each of us, much as one might analyze a dream, we can see Esau as that within us which we feel the need to demonize, criticize and ostracize. Only by viewing this piece of us with equanimity and compassion can we walk on the path of oneness.
And so, through the original midrash that follows, I have tried to recover Esau as a patriarch and as part of myself, along with his brother and the other patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people.
The Peace of Brothers
The young man walked as fast as he could along the desert path. Surrounded by nothing but sand, stones and sparse brush he could feel the blood pumping, anger pulsing within. Behind him, the setting sun burned bright red. Mingling with the red hair that covered his body and the crimson of the anger in his face it seemed as if he were on fire. For he was.
“How could he have done it,” he continually muttered under his breath, “… my own brother.” The anger in his eye mingled with an intense sadness the two struggling for domination of his mind and soul. Currently, anger was winning the battle.
“And my father …” he thought to himself, “ … how could he not have realized what was happening? Even blind, how could he not have known in his soul that he was being tricked? I expect no better from my mother …… but him!” And so the young man continued walking, almost running, looking all around him for something – someone – who could not be see anywhere. Looking for his brother who, unknown to him, was far away in the opposite direction.
Finally he realized that he had better make camp before the sun set. At that moment he came upon a stream that he had never seen before, even though he thought he knew this part of the desert well. He went to the stream, bent down and splashed its cool water on his burning face. It did nothing to cool his rage. Then he gathered odd bits of wood and brush to make a fire. He then sat down upon a large stone and began to arrange the wood, all the while mumbling to himself “when I find him I’ll kill him for what he has taken from me.”
While still muttering to himself he lit the fire and stared into it’s burning flames as they tried to stay alive. Suddenly he noticed a shadow on the ground in front of him. He looked up and saw a strange man standing there, his facial features eclipsed by the sun that was setting directly behind him. Out of the blackness of this sunset shadow the man, “Esau, what are you doing?” Esau was stunned, “how did you know my name?” he asked. The man did not respond, but simply continued to speak to him with great intensity and purpose.
“Esau. Your anger has cried out to me. I have heard the screams of your desire for vengeance. It is your rage that has brought me here to you.” The man paused and Esau sat in silence not knowing how to respond.
“But why are you so enraged? Why is murder the only thought on your mind?” “How could I think of anything else? My very own brother has stolen my birthright along with the blessing from my father! I have been left with nothing! And beyond that, my father, who I thought loved and understood me, allowed himself to be duped by my brother and my mother. Now I am left with nothing except my desire for revenge and justice!”
“Justice!” replied the stranger, “true justice does not require the blood of another human being! Especially the justice of the God of your ancestors! The God whose name is shalom/peace. The God who brought me to you at this very moment.”
“That God is no longer my god,” replied Esau. “That God has abandoned me. That God, in which that I believed with my whole being may still be my father’s God, my mother’s God, my brother’s God. If that God were my god this would not allow this to happen. I no longer have a God!” With that Esau turned away from the stranger, looked down at the ground and began stoking the flames of the slowly dying fire.
As the sun continued to set behind the stranger he spoke to Esau in a voice that filled Esau with fear and awe. “If that is the case, then why am I here? Your voice cried out to the God of your ancestors, of your God. And it is God who has sent me to you to deliver a message.” “But why?” Esau replied, “If God truly cared God would not have allowed any of this to happen.”
“ Listen closely Esau, for I am here to give you a message from the Divine, but which comes from my experience and my all-too-human heart. I am here to beg you, to plead with you, not to continue your hatred of your brother. You must let go of the hatred in your heart. You must rid yourself of your murderous desire. For hatred destroys compassion and mercy and eventually will destroy you.”
Upon hearing these words Esau looked up with fierceness in his eyes that mirrored the hatred in his soul. “How dare you tell me what I must or must not do? You have no idea what I have gone through! You haven’t a clue what it feels like to be a pawn in a game of favorites between your parents and then to think that finally, the fact that you are just a few minutes older will finally pay off because – no matter what –father’s blessing is yours! And then to have all of that taken from you. To see your brother, whom you have tried to love in spite of everything, become the chosen one instead! This is more than anyone can bear!”
The stranger replied with a sense of compassion and equanimity that began to slowly have an affect on Esau’s anger, though he did not know why. “Esau, know what you are feeling. I have felt this way as well. I know what it’s like to feel rejected by a parent figure, to feel inferior to your brother and to allow my hatred to become so strong, so uncontrollable that it eventually led me to murder. Unable to find compassion within or to change the direction of my heart I reached out my hand to slay my own brother! That is why God sent me, begging you not to make the same mistake as I. Do not to doom yourself to a life of endless wandering, loneliness and hopelessness, such as I.”
At that moment Esau looked up at the stranger. The sun had finally set so that he could see his face a little more clearly in the light of the flames. It was worn with years, and yet he still appeared young in some strange way. Esau could see in the man’s eyes a sadness and a tenderness that told him this man was bringing him a truth that he needed to hear. A truth that transcended the hatred he had been feeling.
As the flames grew even brighter, Esau’s eyes were drawn to the man’s forehead, for in the middle there was a mark. As he was attempting to make out if it was a letter or an image of some other kind he suddenly realized who was speaking to him. “You …” he stammered “ you are …” he could not make himself say the name. “Yes,” said the stranger, “I am Cain, son of the first human beings and the first one to murder … my very own flesh and blood! I have been doomed since that day to wander the earth trying to repent for my sin by preventing others from doing the same. And so when your heart cried out to me in anger and pain I knew I had to come.”
Esau remained sitting in stunned silence as Cain continued, “The message I have for you is a simple one. If you turn your heart and soul away from your anger and return to your home, then this place on which we stand will be blessed, just as your life will be blessed. It will be a holy place, as you have inherent holiness within you. It will be place of rahamim and shalom, of compassion, peace and tranquility, as will your soul. This place will forever be known as a place where God’s presence dwells. It will also be the place to which, when the time is right, you shall return and reconcile with your brother in peace and in love.
“But if you continue to hate – whether or not you find or kill your brother – this place will forever be cursed. It shall be known as a place of death and hatred where nothing shall bloom or grow. It will remain forever as empty and desolate as a heart of hatred and jealousy. The choice is yours, my son. I only pray that you chose the right path and do not do as I did.”
The two men looked into each other’s eyes and each other’s souls. Not another word needed to be spoken. Esau looked down at the flames at his feet he allowed Cain’s words to enter him. He paid attention to the message be sent and he could feel the anger within him beginning to melt.
When he looked up to reply to Cain, he was no longer standing there. Esau arose and looked around. But he knew that he was once again alone. But he then realized something important. Filled with anger he had cut himself off from humanity, from family and from God. He was truly alone. But as the anger subsided he realized that he was not alone. Standing there he could sense his connection to all, to God. He looked at the flames, now beginning to die, he listened to the water flowing and imagined it dousing the flames of hatred in his heart and purifying his soul. For a long time he simply stood there paying attention to these feelings within him. H knew that there was still anger and hurt within him, but he was no longer allowing this to control him. Then he looked down at the place where he stood and he knew at that moment that it was indeed destined to return. He then lay down on the ground next to the stone where he had been sitting and fell into a deep sleep.
In the morning when he awoke, Esau anointed the stone next to him with the water from the stream and named the place M’kom Shalom - place of peace, in honor of what had occurred. He then returned home to live his life, knowing that one day he would once again stand by that stream, the one that he had never noticed before, and embrace his brother in peace, compassion and love.